Monday, December 27, 2010

Cost of Homemade vs Canned Soup

I've been eating Tasty Classics soups for $0.25 per serving, but this is because it was on sale for $0.50 per can. There was a recall of some of the Tasty Classics soup because of possible botulism contamination. I don't know if they'e now stopped making the soup, or if my local grocery store got hold of a large lot of it for almost nothing.

Most canned soup costs $0.50 per serving or more.

I found this interesting post on the Julie At Home blog. It compares the cost of homemade with canned soups.

Based on Julie's comparison, the cost of homemade soup is significantly lower than the cost of canned soup, and the homemade version tastes better as well.

Here is another of Julie's comparisons of homemade vs purchased prepared foods:

The Gardens in Winter

My nephew, who lives in Brooklyn, was going to visit San Antonio tomorrow but is stuck at JFK. Due to the blizzard, all flights have been canceled, the streets are closed, and trains are not running. There are even people stuck on trains.

Here in central Texas, it's a sunny, spring-like day. The recent foggy nights followed by rain have made the winter grass grow. I have not written about my gardens lately, because I have been too sad. A promoter from Houston got several hundred thousand dollars from European investors and drilled an oil well on the land next to mine, into the shale that lies just beneath the sandstone. They used hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") to break up the shale, which frees the oil so it can be pumped up. The methane that comes up with the oil in this area is what's called "sour gas" -- that is to say, it has a high sulfur content. So now, every north wind brings the smell of hydrogen sulfide. I have not had the water tested yet. The well operator assured me that they were casing the well with concrete down to 700 feet, which is below the level of the water. The theory is that this will keep oil, gas, and fracking fluid from entering the aquifer.

When I bought this land, I knew that it was in an oil field. Also, I benefit from oil and natural gas on a regular basis, to run my vehicle, to heat my house, to ship my food to the store, to operate the machinery to grow and harvest the food, to produce fertilizers and pesticides (to the extent I do not use "organic" food and fabrics), to create plastics and synthetic fibers. As I look around the room where I now sit, few of the objects in the room would be here without oil. So it would be wrong for me to feel angry. Instead, I am sad about the choices we humans have made, to trade our land and water for oil. According to the information I can find online, most of the oil used in the U.S. (the largest oil consumer of any nation in the world) is used for transportation and shipping. In fact, it looks as though more than half the oil purchased in the U.S. is used to make gasoline to run cars. Only a small fraction is used for shipping goods. I have not found a carefully researched table about where people go when they're burning all that gasoline, but based on observation, I'd expect to find that most of the gasoline used in cars is to go to and from work and to shop.  So we could make a huge dent in the amount of oil used simply by living close to where we work and shop. Changing zoning laws to allow businesses and homes to coexist should significantly reduce oil consumption. In addition, I imagine it would make life far more pleasant for most people. I've always arranged to live close enough to my work place to walk or ride a bicycle, because I hate driving cars through rush-hour traffic, or riding in buses or trains. I especially enjoy walking, just going out the door and walking to work. I'm definitely no saint, though. I walk to work because I enjoy doing it, not specifically to reduce oil consumption. If the weather is rainy, I drive. If I need to take home a lot of paperwork, I drive. Not to mention driving between San Antonio and the country place once each week and driving 30 miles to buy milk.

Anyway, I have been so sad about the oil well next door that I have not felt like writing. But I'm not one for feeling sad without thinking of things to do to remedy the situation. Sometimes, that means actively doing something, such as moving. It would certainly be easy enough for me to move. I still own the land at Altamira, just a couple of miles from here as the crows fly.  But in the present case, I've decided to change my point of view, rather than moving. It will be an interesting challenge to make beautiful gardens in the midst of ugliness. I will put plant living windbreaks that will absorb at least some of the hydrogen sulfide. If the ground water has been contaminated, I will install a rainwater collection system.

I will get guineas to eat the grasshoppers and use Nolo bait in the spring.

With respect to excessive driving ... most people will probably stop doing it when the price of gasoline goes up to $6 or $7 per gallon, or they will shift to engines or motors that do not burn oil. It will be interesting to see what happens next.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

December 26 Low-Cost Healthy Meals

Breakfast: cup of milk $0.5

Snack: V8 juice $0.3

Lunch: Baked tuna steak with crushed pecan crust  $4.50
asparagus $0.88  Cost of meal: $5.38

Dinner: lentil soup $1; fresh spinach $0.45; grapefruit $0.05; cup of milk $0.5 Cost of Meal: $2.00

Snack: 2 large raw carrots $0.06

Bedtime snack: 2 oz cheese $0.25

Total Cost of Meals: $8.49  (I could have had approximately the same nutrients by eating canned tuna instead of fresh tuna steak, and the cost would have been about $1 instead of $4.50. The total cost of meals for the day would have been $4.99, which, I believe, is still about $0.49 cents above the daily budget for the Texas Food Stamp Challenge  However, some of my other days have been below the $4.50 per day budget, so maybe I'm still within budget. Not that I set out to take the Food Stamp Challenge, but it's interesting to see how well one can eat within the budget. I could have brought today's meals within the $4.50 budget by making my own lentil soup instead of buying the relatively expensive Amy's brand soup, and by eating canned tuna instead of fresh.

Kristi Willis of Austin Farm to Table came up with some wonderful recipes, all within the food stamp budget and all healthy. She prepared food as though she were cooking for a family, and stored the leftovers in her freezer.

Christmas Day Low Cost Healthy Diet

Breakfast: egg $0.15 (I'm guessing, since I got the egg from my hens); sausage $0.70; grapefruit $0.05; coffee $.05
Total cost of meal: $0.95 Time to prepare 5 minutes

Lunch: yogurt & berry smoothie - 1 cup yogurt $1; backberries $2; a little vanilla; some stevia
Total cost of meal: $3 Time to prepare: 4 minutes to prepare, 2 minutes to wash food processor

Snack: 1 oz cheese  $0.13

Dinner: Chicken broth $0.50; fresh spinach $0.45; pecans (free); lettuce and tomato salad with croutons $0.6; cup of milk $0.5
Total cost $2.05

Snack: grapefruit $.05

Bedtime snack: banana $.05

Total cost of meals for the day: $6.23
I did not add up the protein for the day, because it's clear I'm getting plenty of protein. Today was the most expensive day so far, because of the berry smoothie. Blackberries are not in season anywhere nearby; the ones I ate were shipped from central Mexico. Also, the yogurt I used was a relatively expensive brand.

The milk I drank was also relatively expensive. I do not like the taste of pasteurized homogenized milk, so I found the Strykly farm, 30 miles away from my country place where one can buy fresh raw milk for $5 per gallon. The reason one has to go to the farm to buy the milk is that it is illegal to sell raw milk in retail stores. This is unfortunate, but probably necessary in an economy where most milk is sold through large dairies that purchase the milk from many different farmers, not all of whom take good care of their cows. The Strykly's Jersey cows appear to be well-loved and well cared for, and the facility where the milk is bottled is clean and pleasant.  This is the sort of place where, if no one is around when you go by to pick up milk, you take what you want from the cooler and leave your money on the desk. It's cheering to know that such places still exist.

I do not have enough knowledge about the health benefits of raw vs pasteurized milk to have a confident opinion. I believe there have been a couple of studies that showed a negative correlation between drinking raw milk and suffering from asthma. Here is one of them:   I used to raise goats for milk. I would have them tested for brucellosis every year, but I never worried about  getting brucellosis from them, because I knew them personally and would know if any one of them was ill. I think the same is true for small dairies where the owners are in direct contact with the cows every day.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Low-Cost Healthy Diet, Another Day

This is for Thursday, Dec 23:

Breakfast: 2 oz cheese $0.25  16 g protein
Cup of coffee with half & half  $0.05  Time to prepare: 2 minutes

Lunch: 1/2 large sausage link made fresh by local butcher shop $0.70. 5 g protein
Egg: about $0.15 ?  I'm not sure of the price of eggs, because I've been using eggs from my hens. 6 g protein
 grapefruit $0.05  Grapefruit is in season here, and I bought an 18 pound bag for $4.50 Time to prepare: 7 minutes

Dinner: 1/2 can minestrone soup $0.25 (this soup was on sale; I think the price would ordinarily be higher)
Added to soup: fresh spinach, fresh zuchinni, fresh green beans approx $0.75. 6 g protein
Pecans: Free. protein 3 - 5 g protein
Ricotta cheese dessert (this is a South Beach diet recipe, except I use whole milk cheese rather than low-fat): a scoop (about 1 cup) of ricotta cheese flavored with almond extract, sweetened with Stevia  $0.35.  25 g protein (can this be right? It's what I found at several sources online, but it seems awfully high) Time to prepare: 6 minutes

Bedtime snack: 1 cup milk 8 g protein $0.5 Time to prepare: 30 seconds

Total prep time: 15.5 minutes

Total cost for the day:  $3.05  If I had to buy the pecans, the cost of food for the day would increase by perhaps 25 cents. I don't think it would be more than that, given that pecans are in season at the moment, and unshelled nuts are less expensive than shelled ones that you buy in packages (also healthier, I'd think, since the nuts go rancid more quickly after they are shelled)

Throughout the day I drank mostly water, but did have two cups of licorice root tea, the cost of which would have been about $0.12 each. I have not been including the cost of herbal tea in the daily food calculations, because I don't consider it nutritional, but perhaps I should include it, in the interest of full disclosure. So if I add the cost of the pecans and tea, the total food bill for the day would have been  $3.54.
Total Protein: 70 grams (if the ricotta cheese actually has 25 g of protein)

Monday, December 20, 2010

A Very Agrarian Meal

Note: I am using organic veggies and milk that are relatively expensive. A person could probably find fresh veggies for less than I'm paying for mine. I believe WalMart now carries milk products without hormones and possibly some organic vegetables. One can also get relatively inexpensive organic veggies at farmers markets. Not to mention growing stuff in one's garden if one has some outdoor space. One could grow herbs such as mint and cilantro on the balcony of an apartment. The people who were interviewed in Food Inc. said they're at work all day, so perhaps they would not have time to tend a garden. Maybe the parents are both working two jobs or something. When I was young, I worked two jobs -- night audit in a hotel from 11:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. and in the office of an insurance company from 8:00 until noon. I had very little spare time, that's for sure, but I still managed to have a small garden that I tended on weekends when the insurance company office was not open. Of course, that was before I had a child to take care of. But the children of the family that was interviewed were in their teens, and it didn't appear that they had jobs. Maybe they could spend a couple of hours a week looking after a garden or a few herb plants on the balcony if they lived in a apartment.They didn't look like completely down and out people living in a motel or vacant lot. I'll bet they had a yard or at least a balcony.

I'm not saying it would be easy to get most kids to tend a garden or that it's a common thing. I'm just saying that it's possible for many people the grow at least some of their veggies and herbs, to further reduce the cost of fresh food so they don't have to eat foods with toxic levels of refined carbohydrates and unhealthy fats.

My meals today were definitely not the sort of thing a hunter-gatherer would have been likely to eat, but still, there were no refined carbohydrates, and the calorie count was within reason.

Breakfast - oat porridge with milk  $0.60  6 minutes  18 g protein
Cup of coffee with half & half  $0.15

Lunch: 2 oz string cheese  $0.25 less than 30- seconds 16 g protein
cold cucumber soup:
     plain Bulgarian yogurt 1 cup $1.50  8 g protein
     cucumber $0.80
     mint from garden (I don't know how much this would have cost at the store, but it could be left out and the soup would still be good)
   chopped garlic $0.05
   1/3 large avocado  $0.50  3 g protein
Total cost: $2.85    time to peel and chop cucumber, gather mint, chop garlic, slice and peel avocado and run through food processor 8 minutes (this is rather expensive in terms of time & money, but it's very good, and it was so filling I didn't need an afternoon snack)

Supper: bowl  of Tasty Classics Corn Chowder $0.25 with 1/2 ear fresh corn $0.12
Time to shell corn: 5 minutes; time to cook corn: 3 minutes; time to heat soup: 4 minutes
A few grapes $0.15 protein 6 grams for soup and 2 grams for corn

For mid evening snack I will have some freshly shell pecans. Free, because I gathered them from the ground, protein  3-5 g protein

For bedtime snack, a bowl of applesauce  $0.25

Total cost to eat today: $4.57
Total protein about 57 g

Even though I ate rather extravagantly today, my total daily bill was still under $5. I believe it would cost more to buy three meals at McDonald's. Lessee ... a "value meal" with chicken mcnuggets, fries, and a drink is $6.39, but apparently you can get 12 chicken mcnuggets without the drink and fries for $3.00. You can get a sausage Mcmuffin with egg for $2.29. Looks as though a Big Mac is around $3.75. Looks like it would be very difficult, perhaps impossible to buy three meals at McDonald's for under $5.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Low-Cost Healthy Diet

In November, 1998, Texas Gardener Magazine published my article The Paleolithic Gardener. I am interested to see that the "paleo diet" is now all the rage.

I no longer have a copy of the article, as it was lost when my house burned down, but as I recall, the article was more about gathering and eating wild foods than adopting a strict paleo diet. Recent advocates of the paleo diet do not insist on gathering wild foods, although I'm sure they would not object to this. According to the author(s) of the Paleo Diet website, "Paleo is a simple dietary lifestyle that is based on foods being either in or out. In are the Paleolithic Era foods that we ate prior to agriculture and animal husbandry (meat, fish, shellfish, eggs, tree nuts, vegetables, roots, fruit, berries, mushrooms, etc.). Out are Neolithic Era foods that result from agriculture or animal husbandry  (grains, dairy, beans/legumes, potatoes, sugar and fake foods)."

I'm not sure what's meant by "fake foods," but I'm guessing that would be stuff such as Chicken McNuggets (see note 1 below). These would not have been Neolithic treats, but still, I see the author's point.

The reason very old-fashioned diets are supposed to be healthy is that the human body evolved prior to the neolithic period (the Neolithic period was believed to have begun around 12,000 years ago, although I think I read somewhere that recent archaeological evidence indicates that people may have been farming and living with domesticated animals prior to that time). Our bodies are made to deal with certain kinds of sugars, proteins, and fats; we don't thrive on substitutes. As a gardener, I would not plant azaleas in the highly alkaline clay soil in my San Antonio garden. I would, instead, plant azaleas in my Caldwell County garden, where the soil is well-draining sandy loam and slightly acidic. For similar reasons, it makes sense for the human consumer to give his or her body the sort of nutrients that will help it to thrive.

There are two reasons I've suddenly become especially interested in my diet: 
1. Ever since I reached the age of 50, I've tended to put on lots more fat than I need;
2. The extra weight is very hard on my knees;
3. I was recently ill with a bad cold or flu. I'm not sure which it was, but it involved fever and feeling completely drained of energy. And it made me lose my appetite. I didn't eat much for several days, and I was amazed to find that even after the cold or flu symptoms were gone, and my energy level back to normal, I didn't crave carbohydrates the way I had before.

I am now able to get by well on about 2/3 of the calories I was consuming before, almost none of which are refined carbohydrates. I can go for many hours without eating, with none of the symptoms of low blood sugar I would have had before (headache, shaky feeling, dizziness).

It reminds me of when I quit smoking as a young person. I had not been able to kick the habit, no matter what I tried, until I got sick with a nasty cold. While I was sick with the cold, I had no desire to smoke. By the time I got well, I'd gotten past the most horrible withdrawal symptoms, and it was not that hard to never smoke again. It was not easy, by any means. For at least a year after I quit, I'd really want to have a cigarette when other people lit up. But it was possible, whereas before I got sick, it was not.

Having developed an intense interest in diets, as a result of what recently happened to me, I watched Super-Size Me and Food, Inc. on Netflix over the weekend. Food, Inc. included an interview with a family who said they could not afford to buy good food. The whole family was eating fast food from paper bags -- stuff that was probably heavily laced with high-fructose corn syrup,  fried in rancid oil. They also said they didn't have time to cook, since they had to leave the house early in the day and didn't get home until about 9:00 in the evening. 

I don't believe this. I believe it's possible to eat a healthy diet for less than the cost of buying fast food, at least in terms of money. I'm not sure about the time. I see that a McDonald's franchisee has reduced the drive-through order time down to one minute by outsourcing the order taking function to a call center.  It would be hard to beat that time, but my experience with drive-through fast food joints is that it takes more like 5 - 10 minutes to get all the way through the line from order to pick-up. In the interest of full disclosure, though, I've never been through a McDonald's drive-through, only Jack-in-the-Box and Taco Bell.

But "According to Nielsen Media Research's latest report, the average American household watches 8 hours and 15 minutes of television in a 24-hour period. The average amount of time per individual (over the age of 2) is about 4 and a half hours."

If people believed they could lose weight and feel better by trading off a couple of hours of TV a week for going to the grocery store instead of to McDonald's, I'll bet most people would be willing to make the trade, if it were not for one thing: addiction.

I believe addiction is the main reason people continue to eat unhealthy food, even though they know it's bad for them, just as a person addicted to cigarettes and short on money will buy cigarettes instead of food. I was addicted to carbohydrates before my recent illness. If I didn't have some carbs every few hours, I would get a headache and might even feel shaky and dizzy. It's VERY hard to stop eating carbs when stopping makes you sick. Also, people are constantly exposed to the smells of frying foods and pictures of food, and people eating on TV.

I'm going to test the theory that healthy food costs more than fast food by tracking the cost of my food, in terms of time and money over the next several days, and see how hard it is to eat a healthy diet without spending a lot of money or time.

Today I have eaten:

Breakfast: oat porridge with milk (8 grams protein in the milk; 10 in the oats) 60 cents for oats and milk [about 6 minutes to pour the rolled oats into a pot with some water, cook, and pour in the milk; 3 minutes to wash pot, bowl & spoon]
Lunch: 4 oz string cheese (8 grams protein in each stick, total 32 grams) [less than 30 seconds to remove wrapper] 50 cents
Snack: a large carrot, eaten raw 5 cents at most [less than 30 seconds to remove from fridge]
Supper: bowl Tasty Classics (Canadian brand) chicken and rotini soup (6 grams protein) 25 cents [4 minutes to open can, pour into pot and cook]
Fresh asparagus 90 cents [3 minutes to break into pieces and throw into the pot of soup] 
Small can V8 juice 40 cents [less than 30 seconds to open can]
5 pecans, gathered from beneath a pecan tree earlier today (3 - 5 gram protein) [5 minutes to gather a bag of pecans]
Mid evening snack: another carrot, eaten raw 5 cents [less than 30 seconds to remove from fridge]
For bed time snack, I will have some unsweetened applesauce and maybe a few more pecans 25 cents for the applesauce

The fresh asparagus was the most expensive thing on the menu today. True, 90 cents per serving is kind of expensive, but my total cost for food for the day was still under $3, which is less than one would spend for a meal at McDonald's. 

I didn't consume a paleo diet today, since the soup contained wheat pasta, and the oats and milk would not have been available in quantity prior to pastoral and agricultural times. But I ate very few refined carbohydrates. I got plenty of protein and fat and carbohydrates, along with a good assortment of vitamins. I spent the morning doing fairly demanding mental work and the afternoon doing physical work in the garden. I felt good the whole time -- no hunger pangs at any time during the day. 

I'll admit that this is not a very interesting diet, so far, but it's at least as varied and visually appealing as a fast food meal. Some of the paleo diet cookbooks have very nice photos of yummy-looking food. 

This is the second week I've been on what would have seemed like a very restrictive diet before my illness. Yet I don't feel at all deprived. I enjoy eating when I'm doing it, but I don't have constant cravings to eat, and I get full on less food than before. I've been losing a pound every 2 or 3 days, which is fairly rapid weight loss, but since I feel good and am getting the other nutrients I need, I think it's OK. I've lost about 5 pounds, and my knees are already working better. I would like to lose 11 or 12 more pounds. I expect the weight loss will taper off as I get lighter and it takes less energy to move my body around. If I'm still losing weight when I get to my goal, I'll want to add some calories to keep my weight stable. I'm sure those calories won't be in the form of refined carbohydrates. The last thing I want is to get addicted again. Instead, I'll eat more fruits such as bananas and more nuts and maybe more meat.

Note 1: "The ingredients listed in the flyer suggest a lot of thought goes into a nugget, that and a lot of corn. Of the thirty-eight ingredients it takes to make a McNugget, I counted thirteen that can be derived from corn: the corn-fed chicken itself; modified cornstarch (to bind the pulverized chicken meat); mono-, tri-, and diglycerides (emulsifiers, which keep the fats and water from separating); dextrose; lecithin (another emulsifier); chicken broth (to restore some of the flavor that processing leeches out); yellow corn flour and more modified cornstarch (for the batter); cornstarch (a filler); vegetable shortening; partially hydrogenated corn oil; and citric acid as a preservative. A couple of other plants take part in the nugget: There's some wheat in the batter, and on any given day the hydrogenated oil could come from soybeans, canola, or cotton rather than corn, depending on the market price and availability.

According to the handout, McNuggets also contain several completely synthetic ingredients, quasiedible substances that ultimately come not from a corn or soybean field but form a petroleum refinery or chemical plant. These chemicals are what make modern processed food possible, by keeping the organic materials in them from going bad or looking strange after months in the freezer or on the road. Listed first are the "leavening agents": sodium aluminum phosphate, mono-calcium phosphate, sodium acid pyrophosphate, and calcium lactate. These are antioxidants added to keep the various animal and vegetable fats involved in a nugget from turning rancid. Then there are "anti-foaming agents" like dimethylpolysiloxene, added to the cooking oil to keep the starches from binding to air molecules, so as to produce foam during the fry. The problem is evidently grave enough to warrant adding a toxic chemical to the food: According to the Handbook of Food Additives, dimethylpolysiloxene is a suspected carcinogen and an established mutagen, tumorigen, and reproductive effector; it's also flammable.

But perhaps the most alarming ingredient in a Chicken McNugget is tertiary butylhydroquinone, or TBHQ, an antioxidant derived from petroleum that is either sprayed directly on the nugget or the inside of the box it comes in to "help preserve freshness." According to A Consumer's Dictionary of Food Additives, TBHQ is a form of butane (i.e. lighter fluid) the FDA allows processors to use sparingly in our food: It can comprise no more than 0.02 percent of the oil in a nugget. Which is probably just as well, considering that ingesting a single gram of TBHQ can cause "nausea, vomiting, ringing in the ears, delirium, a sense of suffocation, and collapse." Ingesting five grams of TBHQ can kill."
Michael Pollan, The Omnivore's Dilemma.  

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Tomato Hornworm or Tabacco Hornworm?

This is either a tobacco hornworm or tomato hornworm. I believe it's the former, because it has seven white stripes and a red horn.

It's an amazing looking creature. Click on the photo to enlarge it. It has a fake eye below each white stripe. It also has a face on its rear end (the end with the red horn). 

The tobacco hornworm is the larval stage of the beautiful Sphinx moth. I'm very fond of the moths, which become active as the sun goes down. I have many 4-o'clocks and a few daturas in my garden, so the Sphinx moth is a common visitor. Today when I went into my garden for the first time since last Monday, I found one of my fall tomato plants defoliated, with two large hornworms who look as though they're getting pretty close to the point where they will drop off the plant and burrow into the soil to pupate over winter. The other tomato plants are fine. I took one of the worms off the plant and gave it to the chickens to eat, but I left one there. What the heck. The plant is already ruined -- there's no way it can recover and produce tomatoes before the first frost -- and I'll be glad to have the moths in the garden.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Not All Politicians Are Afraid to Mention This Topic ...

This photo has nothing to do with the following text. I found the picture on an old hard drive and wanted to save it. My daughter took this photo of me a few years ago when I was in my freight-hopping phase.

Until today, I had no idea that a person could be branded for life, barred from employment and housing, forced to endure perverted "treatments" reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange, for the "crime" of falling in love with someone three years younger. Sex Offenders Exposed, published in the Austin Chronicle last month, describes insane laws that group high school sweethearts together with sexual predators who rape and kill children, all under the heading "Sex Offender."

I'm not sure whether this is a worst-case example of a glitch in the way people assess risk, or if there is some other reason for these laws. Maybe a combination of causes. In any event, the laws are clearly hurting people, not helping, and could never have been expected to accomplish the goal of protecting children from sexual predators. Unfortunately, politicians don't want to touch the subject, for fear of being accused of being "soft" on sex offenders. Most people probably don't know how broad the law is -- I certainly didn't. I had no idea you could do prison time, be placed on parole for life, be subjected to monthly lie detector tests, and forced to undergo "treatments" that would make it difficult for you to ever have a normal sexual relationship. You could be subjected to all this, not because you hurt anyone, but because you were a young person who was curious, and you looked at some photos; or because you were 19, and a girl you were in love with told you she was 17, but actually she was only 15, and you held her hand. 

In the comments under the article, one politician was willing to stand up for reason -- Ed Kless says:

I am running as a Libertarian against Senator Shapiro in November. I am running is a straight up race, there is no Democrat in the race.

While I am sure Senator Shapiro (mentioned in the article) meant well in passing this legislation she is just wrong about the purpose of government. It is not to protect people from all harm, but rather to protect their individual rights. 

The unintended consequences of legislation of this nature are rarely looked it. Kudus to Jordon Smith for a fine piece of investigative reporting. We need more stories like this.

Please visit my campaign site at, if you like what you see please consider passing it on to your friends. 

Sunday, September 26, 2010

More On Javelinas

Here's a wonderful video Mark Gridley took in his back yard. It reminds me of one time when we had some adolescent kittens at our house. The back of the breezeway between my cabin and Kat's was open at the top and had a small opening at the bottom, large enough for a kitten to go through. The javelinas were milling around behind the house, and one young javelina had his nose right down by the opening when one of the kittens scampered through. When the kitten and javelina laid eyes on each other, they both started and jumped back. It was quite funny, as the javelina was about 20 times the size of the kitten.

This shows the good side of javelinas. Their bad side, for me, was that they could completely destroy a garden if they got in; they were not a all scared of people and would come right into the house if they could (you can see this in Mark's video -- the javelinas are coming right up onto his patio) -- no amount of yelling would persuade them to leave (the only thing we found that would discourage them was Kat's French horn); they killed my chickens and tore open my dogs. Other than that, they were delightful little creatures. I actually miss them, sort of,  now that I'm living in a less wild area where they don't hang out.

Mark mentions walking with the herd. Maybe that afternoon when I found myself surrounded by them, they were just curious. Still, I'd have been afraid to mingle with them. If a mother thought I meant harm to her baby, the whole herd could attack in a heartbeat.

An Explanation After Many Years

Many years ago, when my daughter Kat and I were living at Altamira, we were walking in the woods at night. I don't remember why. There must have been some good reason, because usually we stayed inside the fenced area around the house at night. There were two types of mainly nocturnal animals I especially wanted to avoid: pumas and javenlinas. Pumas typically avoid humans. I was aware of at least one puma who lived on our land, or at least passed through from time to time, and she always kept her distance. On the other hand, the javelinas were not in the least afraid of humans. When I was first building the house,  before I'd put on the doors, the creatures would come right into the house. This is why a fenced yard around the house and outbuildings was one of my highest priorities.

Photo from Carnivora website

Javelinas are omnivorous. They eat lots of nuts and roots, but I have personally seen them break into a chicken pen to kill and eat the chickens. I've also seen them tear a large dog to shreds, and they have been known to seriously injure or kill people. One evening, a couple of years prior to the evening my daughter were walking in the woods at night, I was walking in the woods with my dogs late in the afternoon (although javenlinas are mostly nocturnal, expecially when the weather is hot, they seem to start foraging shortly before sundown and continue until shortly after sunrise) and found myself surrounded by javelinas. They usually make quite a bit of noise as they go through the woods, digging around for food and grunting to each other. But that evening, they were very quiet. I did not notice them until they had surrounded me, nor did my dogs notice them at first. They must have kept downwind from us, so we didn't smell them (they have a fairly strong, distinctive odor). It's possible they were just curious about me (they are highly intelligent, curious animals), but I got the distinct impression that I was prey, that I was to feature as the main course for their dinner that night. I went up the nearest tree, and the dogs ran off in the opposite direction. I stayed in the tree until I was sure the javelinas had gone.

Anyhow, this one night Kat and I were walking in the woods well after dark, and we heard a pack of javelinas approaching. Javelinas can run surprisingly fast (the Carnivora website says they have been clocked at up to 21 mph); there was no way we could be sure of  outrunning them for long in the woods. It was dark and cloudy, so there was little light from moon or stars. We would likely have tripped over a vine or run into a branch. However, there was a fenced enclosure not too far from where we were. "Go over the fence!" I said to Kat, and ran to the fence and leaped over, putting a hand on the top wire and vaulting over, something I never could have done if I hadn't been pumped up with fear. Once I got over myself, I helped Kat over.

This incident has always disturbed me, because I believed my first thought should have been to save my child. I don't know whether or not the javelinas would have hurt us. But at the time, I certainly believed that we were in great danger.  How could I jump over the fence and leave my child on the other side, even for a few seconds?  When I talked about it with friends later, they all said they thought I did the right thing. They said it was like putting on one's oxygen mask first before helping one's child, in the even of cabin depressurization in an airliner. This makes sense. If the javelinas had gotten me, they probably would have gotten Kat as well, because she would have had trouble jumping the fence herself, and there was not enough time to climb through the wires. But I didn't stop and think this all through at the time. I just leaped the fence and only thought about Kat once I was safely on the other side.

I'm reading a book by Jeff Wise, Extreme Fear. It says that when one is in an immediate life-or-death situation (or believes one is in such a situation), the ventral lateral prefrontal cortex stops working. We don't think. There isn't time to think. If there's an escape route, one flees; if not, one stands and fights. So it would have been my amygdala that induced me to leap over the fence and my prefrontal cortex kicking in after I was safe, directing me to rescue my child.

Wise writes: "Unfortunately, most of us have a hard time appreciating before the fact how nonnegotiable this [amygdala driven] effect will be. We get so used to making our way through the wold under the stewardship of our complex and sophisticated C-system (prefrontal cortex) that we tend to assume that we will always have it at our disposal When we suddenly find ourselves drowning in a flood of noradrenaline, it can be shocking how little brainpower we have at our disposal."

The more you practice facing certain kinds of danger, the less likely you are to end up running on fear's autopilot. With events that are relatively likely to happen, you can think ahead before you're in a desperate situation. For example, when I was a teenager learning how to fly a single-engine Cessna 182, my instructor taught me to always be on the lookout for a place I could land if the engine quit. I got into the habit of doing this sort of thing when driving as well. So, for example, if I'm approaching a truck or car, I think of where I'll go if the other vehicle suddenly veers into my lane (or if I noticed that there's no escape route, I'll usually slow down). When I'm listening to an audio book or talking on the phone while driving, I'm not as likely to be scanning ahead like this, so I'm more likely to crash the car.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Yes's or No's?

A young person (I assume) writes on a Chris McCandless blog:
Imagine, opening your eyes to discover the vas[t], unseen wilderness. Waking up in a place without any yes’s or no’s, only you and your surroundings, hearing nothing but the sweet sound of Mother Nature.

--Lance Wood

Maybe Mr. Wood means no arbitrary yes's or no's, but I suspect he has a naive view of the wilderness as something like a vacation resort, with regular meals, no mosquitoes, and an infirmary stocked with antibiotics. The wilderness is one place where there are absolute yes's and no's. If you disobey them, you get hurt or die.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Living in the Wilderness

The first definition that pops up on Google under the search term "wilderness" is: "Wilderness or wildland is a natural environment on Earth that has not been significantly modified by human activity."

By this definition, the part of the central Texas sand hills where I built a house for my daughter and me qualifies as wilderness, even though the closest neighbor was only a mile and a quarter away. Our land is at the top of the Carrizo sandstone ridge that runs from south Texas through Louisiana and Arkansas, roughly parallel to the coast line of the Gulf of Mexico. The darker colored strip in the image below, labeled "outcrop" is known locally as the "sand hills" throughout most of its range (click on image to see the website from which I took it). 

The soil of Altamira consists of medium-coarse sand overlying red sandstone and clay. As the red color suggests, the iron content of the soil is high; there are other minerals, including uranium, lead, and silver. It's said that in colonial days, the Spanish dug several silver mines in the area. There are remnants of what appears to have been an adobe house with a sandstone fireplace and chimney next to a trail that is said to have been a portion of El Camino Real, that went from East Texas down into the main part of Mexico (I have no idea whether this story about the trail is true -- in maps I've seen of El Camino Real, the road looks as though it may have run through our land, but I would have expected the road to run along creek bottom land, not right up over the top of the ridge). Next to the path are the remnants of what appear to have been a small adobe house with a sandstone fireplace and chimney (evidence of the old house include a pile of stones and a large amount of clay on the surface of the sand, bits of pottery and china table wear, as well as stuff I found with a metal detector: part of a cast iron stove, a barrel hoop, odd bits of metal). The ruins of the old house, occasional stone spear heads, and an oil pipeline running through the center of the property, roughly parallel to the trail but a bit north of it, were the only signs that people had been on the land. 

According to a (very non-technical) book I have called Roadside Geology of Texas, the Carrizo outcrop was caused by sedimentary layer laid down in the Eocene period when the Gulf Coast was a couple hundred miles inland from its current location. A paper presented at the American Association of Petroleum Geologists Annual Convention, New Orleans, Louisiana, April 11-14, 2010, says: "Sandstone modal compositions and detrital zircon U‐Pb analyses of the Paleocene‐Eocene Wilcox Group of the southern Gulf Coast of Texas indicate long‐distance sediment transport from primarily volcanic and basement sources to the west, northwest, and southwest. ... This study indicates that the drainage area for the Gulf of Mexico during the Paleocene‐Eocene was larger than previously thought, encompassing not only the Laramide basement uplifts, but the volcanic province of northern Mexico and possibly Cordilleran tectonic regions along the westernmost North America." [U-Pb is shorthand for uranium and lead, as I recall from my university chemistry classes]

The red color would indicate that lighter minerals have washed out of the soil, leaving mostly iron. In fact, old timers have told me that the Caldwell County sand hills used to be known locally as the "Iron Mountains."

I have seen multiple flocks of wild geese circling Altamira in stacked layers, like a huge traffic jam at a major airport. it's one of the weirdest things I've ever seen -- I wondered if their navigation system was somehow messed up by a magnetic field created by all the iron in the soil. Would love to know if anyone else has observed this sort of behavior in migrating geese.

Strictly speaking, based on the distance between trees that make up the climax canopy, the land is savannah -- post-oak savannah, to give its "official" name. It is a 3 million hectare (7.4 m acre) borderland between the deciduous forests of the eastern U.S. and the prairie grasslands to the west. Annual rainfall averages 45 inches in the eastern-most parts to 35 in the west, where my land is located. According to climatic change research being done at Texas A&M University, 'Oak savannas contain the dominant life forms of both adjacent biomes to form a “tension” zone between grasslands and forests which may increase their responsiveness to global change drivers. Global change scenarios can be envisioned where either the tree or grass life forms would gain an advantage and encroach upon the adjacent biome. It is within this context, that tension zones provide a valuable opportunity to explore the responsiveness of these life forms to various global change drivers.' More on this later, for sure, but for now, back to the concept of wilderness.

One of the main reasons I bought the Berry Farm is that it transitions from post oak savannah soil to blackland prarie soil, to creek bottom, all within its 1/4 mile (about 400 meters) length. The native flora have been removed from the eastern, sandy part of the land. Unlike Altamira, with its coarser sand, the Berry Farm has loamy sand on its eastern side and was useful for growing crops. So settlers in the 1800's cleared the land and grew cotton here. Therefore, the Berry Farm does not qualify as wilderness, nor does it feel in the least like wilderness, as there are neighbors living within a few hundred feet.

Altamira felt like wilderness. It was far enough away from neighbors that one could yell and scream, and no one would hear. I liked this aspect of it when I was angry or frustrated and wanted to shout obscenities at high volume. The downside was that my daughter and I were on our on. We were on our own in other ways as well. The place was pretty much inaccessible from the county road, except on foot or by horse or the most rugged off-highway types of vehicles. I could get my old Datsun pickup in, but only because I knew exactly where to drive and when I needed to speed up to skitter across areas of deep sand. When people came to visit, I had to meet them at the county road and give them a ride in my truck, or walk with them up to the house. It was not feasible to call someone to come out and repair my washing machine, say, or get the truck running when it wouldn't start, or set up a water purification plant to clean up the silty water from the pond for household use. I had to learn how to do everything myself.

In many respects, it was like wilderness, but it was not truly wilderness. It was only 4.5 miles from the village of McMahan, where one could buy gasoline and barbecue. Only 16.5 miles from Lockhart, where one could buy almost any sort of supplies one could possibly need. So in that respect, it was very much a part of civilization. One of the first things I did was to find an old water heater in someone's trash and rig it up so I could build a fire under it and take a warm bath (in a little tub I got from an old travel trailer).

One reason I moved to the "wilderness" was so I could live cheaply. I found being a single mother very difficult. I wanted to spend time with my daughter as she grew up, and it was literally almost the death of me. Working full time, and also trying to do volunteer work at my daughter's school, participate in Girl Scouts, etc. wore me down. In ... I think it was 1990 ... I got bilateral pneumonia and came close enough to death to know what it's like to die (it's not bad -- once you accept that you're probably going to die and give up fighting it, there is no more pain). I could see that I needed to change the way I was living, if I wanted to see my daughter grow up. So there was that -- the need to work fewer hours and get more rest (it never occurred to me to work the same number of hours and reduce the amount of time I spent with my daughter).

Besides convincing me that I needed to figure out a way to live on almost no money, the close-to-death experience changed my thinking in some fundamental ways. My post-1990 life was like a bonus, a chance to do all the things I'd regret not doing, next time I was lying on my death bed.

Ever since I was a 4-year-old child, I had longed to live in a small village or on a farm. My great-grandmother, Annette Lamar, taught me to read from a book she'd used for her students when she was a school teacher in the 1930's. The main characters in the book were Alice and Jerry, two children who lived in a place called Friendly Village. At the time, I lived in a sterile suburban neighborhood in Houston, where the land was flat, all the houses were pretty much alike, and kids played in fenced back yards. I had such a longing to live in a place like Friendly Village! There was a picture I especially remember, a view of the village from the top of a grassy hill.

A village like that was really what I'd longed for all those years, but I didn't know of any such place in real life, certainly not in central Texas. I wanted to stay in central Texas so my daughter could maintain an on-going personal relationship with her father, who lived in Austin. Lockhart would be a lot like that, if there were no cars. I think cars have been the main source of destruction for U.S. cities and villages. I don't want to get started talking about Robert Moses right now. What's done is done, and one has to start where one is.

The views from both Altamira and the Berry Farm are somewhat like the view of Friendly Village from the grassy hilltop -- minus the village ... well, and without quite so many hills [Altamira is actually quite high up -- from the northwestern edge of the land, we could see across the valley all the way to San Marcos and the "hill country," 32 miles away]. 

Here's Altamira, looking north from (this is a mile and a quarter from our house, looking out over the neighbors' land, into civililzation):

and the Berry Farm, looking east from:

If I'd been more of a sociable person, an organizer, I might have found a bunch of like-minded people to create a new village. But the people I knew who would be interested in such a thing were not the sort of people who would be competent to actually go out and create a village. So I decided, what the hell, I'll do the best I can on my own.

In the course of building a house and growing my own food, I discovered that, even in a gentle land like central Texas,  it's pretty nearly impossible for one person to be self-sufficient. There's a reason humans are called "social animals."  If we had been completely on our own, my daughter an I would almost surely have died. It was easy, easy, easy to grow, or find, fruits and vegetables. We never would have had to worry about scurvy or folic acid deficiency. It was pretty easy to get protein as well. The really difficult thing was getting enough calories. It's so much the opposite of what one is used to dealing with in our culture, that I think it's probably hard for people to believe, if they haven't actually tried to live off the land for an extended period of time. Back in the time when there were ways of making a living in the U.S. that involved being away from civilization for a while -- trapping or prospecting, for example, there was a nutritional disease called "rabbit fever." I'm not sure where I first heard this -- maybe from Wild Horse Havard, who grew up in the piney woods of Liberty County, Texas. When you google on "rabbit fever," you get mostly websites about sick rabbits, but the pre-1900 meaning was a sickness resulting from getting too many of one's calories from protien. It is also sometimes referred to as "rabbit starvation." 

Rabbit starvation, also referred to as protein poisoning or mal de caribou, is a form of acute malnutrition caused by excess consumption of any lean meat (e.g., rabbitt) coupled with a lack of other sources of nutrients usually in combination with other stressors, such as severe cold or dry environment. Symptoms include diarrhea, headache, fatigue, low blood pressure and heart rate, and a vague discomfort and hunger that can only be satisfied by consumption of at or carbohydrates." 

I recently watched a documentary about the adventures of Chris McCandless (The Call of the Wild by Ron Lamothe). I was not unfamiliar with McCandless's story, having seen the Sean Penn movie and read Into the Wild by John Karkauer (which somewhat glorified McCandless), and several essays by Alaskans most of whom think of McCandless as a dumbass who went out into the wilderness deliberately unprepared. Lamothe's view of McCandless is the most similar to my own -- McCandless did some really stupid things, but don't we all, when we're young and adventurous? Remembering my self in my early 20's, recalling some of the close calls I had, I don't feel scornful of McCandless. I feel sorry that he didn't make it, because I'll bet he would have turned out to be a very interesting person if he had lived to be a mature man. 

Anyhow, based on the diet described by Krakauer, who said he got it from McCandless's jounal, once his 10 pound bag of rice was gone, McCandless was living almost entirely on lean meat. So I suspect that he suffered from "rabbit fever." Even if he'd been able to preserve the caribou he shot, he'd have been in trouble.

Dick Proenneke, who lived in a log cabin in the Alaskan wilderness for 30 years, routinely had supplies brought in from the outside. Even though he was alone in the wilderness most of the time, he had a constant lifeline from civilization.

When my daughter and I lived at Altamira, we made regular trips to town for supplies. I kept many pounds of staples, such as wheat and corn seeds, sugar, and salt on hand at all times. In 1997 (or was it 1998?) a flood washed out the bridge on the only road that connected us to the rest of the world. I went down and saw that the usually peaceful little creek had become a raging torrent 15 feet deep, and I would no sooner have tried to cross it than to jump from a 10-story building. But life went on as usual at Altamira. My daughter didn't want to miss school, so we hiked out the back way, and she stayed with friends until the flood subsided and the bridge was re-built. 

Reading about Chris McCandless, knowing that there was a "back way" out for him too, I have to wonder why he didn't follow the Teklanika River, when it blocked his path, until it intersected a road. Maybe he thought he'd be OK living on wild game. Maybe he didn't know about rabbit fever.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Something to Ponder

David Rowan (Wired) writes in his article about why not to post Facebook profiles

2) They make it harder to reinvent yourself
“When you’re young, you make mistakes and you do some stupid stuff,” President Obama warned high-school students in Virginia last September. “Be careful about what you post on Facebook, because in the YouTube age whatever you do will be pulled up later somewhere in your life.” He’s right: anything posted online might come to haunt you permanently, yet all of us need space to grow. As the writer Jaron Lanier said in a recent lecture, if Robert Zimmerman, of small-town Hibbing, Minnesota, had had a Facebook profile, could he really have re-created himself as the New York beatnik Bob Dylan
Hmmm ... I wonder how often people are embarrassed by things they've posted online. I can imagine Facebook having a negative impact on one's career -- for example, if someone were trying to get a job as a teacher in a conservative private school, and their Facebook page had photos of them posing nude to show off their tats. I myself have two separate personas -- the tax lawyer and the farmer. I'm not ashamed of either, but they're each very different from the other.

Friday, September 17, 2010

How Did This Happen?

Most of the people I know work very hard, but I'm pretty sure most of them love their lives. When I get into a pensive mood, as during the past week, I sometimes wonder if my own life is tragic or glorious. There have definitely been tragic moments, such as when my cousin Liz died at the age of 46. She'd been one of my closest friends since we were babies just learning to walk. We talked on the phone every day, saw each other often. I was the one the cops came to with the news that she'd crashed her car. I think she herself (or some aspect of her) came to me as well, that same day. I was working in the garden and suddenly saw a vision of a bloody face. My first terrified thought was that something had happened to my daughter, and I ran to the house to make sure she was OK. I learned later, that the vision came at the same moment Liz died.

My father, whom I adored, died five years after Liz. 

I've also been, at various times, financially destitute, divorced, near death from pneumonia. When I was a young person first trying to make it on my own, I sometimes didn't have much money for food and had to subsist on beans, brewer's yeast, vitamin C pills, and food people left on their plates at the restaurant where I worked as a waitress (I would encourage customers to order meals I especially liked, hoping they'd leave some for me). 

Even during the times when I had very little money, I never felt poor. I always considered it a temporary condition. And yet, I've also had, from as far back as I can remember, a sense that things can change in an instant. I lost two childhood friends, one when I was two, to pneumonia, another when I was 5, to leukemia. Maybe that's one reason ... maybe too because the threat of nuclear war was a constant ... our neighbors had a bomb shelter that doubled as a pool room, and in school we had to do drills where we cowered in the hallways with our arms covering our heads. I can remember, even as a young person, thinking at a birthday celebration where a decadent chocolate cake was served after a rich meal: "I must remember every detail of this, in case some day I am starving and have only my memories as comfort." 

I have never even come close to starving. Even when I was eating the leftovers off customers' plates in the restaurant, the worst thing I suffered was a boring cuisine. I never actually went hungry, nor was I even undernourished. In fact, I usually felt really good. I think the beans and brewer's yeast were a pretty healthy diet, or would have been if I'd thrown in some fresh fruits and veggies (at the restaurant I tended to love such treats as cheese blintzes rather than fruits and veggies). 

I eat very well now, my main problem being self-restraint. In fact, my life is close to everything I every dreamed of having when I was young and poor: a loving, highly intelligent husband; work I enjoy; pleasant places to live; occasional travel, but not too much travel; a beautiful, intelligent, sweet daughter. Almost every day is a joy to live. Of course I know it can't last forever. I'm already getting old. But, as someone called Mary Butts once said, I "build a little fence of trust around today."

One of the most wonderful things about my life is that I can walk to work, and it is a lovely walk. I've always arranged my life so that I could either walk or ride my bicycle to work, but some walks or rides have been better than others. My present walk between home and work in San Antonio is one of my favorites.
Below are some photos of what I get to look at when I walk to work. From late spring to late fall, the sun is so bright, and the shade so deep!

A couple of days ago, I took a short break from working on tax returns. A couple of blocks from my office, there is a Methodist church. From the sidewalk, I could hear the sounds of an organist practicing. I followed the sound; the front doors of the church were locked, so I sat on the steps and listened. Here is my view west from where I sat on the steps:

And here are some photos I took with my phone as I walked between the office and home:

Thursday, September 16, 2010

High Cost of Housing

I have been disappointed not to find any new insights into the reasons for high housing costs in Jane Jacob's book; however, I'm grateful for the motivation to think about it. Jacobs mentions the following reasons:

  • supply and demand
  • low-density of housing in suburbs
  • greedy landlords in urban areas
The first seem obvious. The third is not as obvious to me. I'm not sure I agree with it, except in special cases where landlords are given special deals by local, state, or federal governments, or where they are backed by organized crime. 

No doubt, some landlords are greedy. Some waiters are greedy too, and some engineers, and some senators, and some students. It's true that some lines of work might appeal to people who are less greedy than average -- Peace Corps volunteers, for example. But in the 23+ years I've been working with small business owners, I have not noticed that landlords are any more or less likely to be greedy than most other groups of people. So OK, some landlords are greedy, some are not.

Given that the group of people who are landlords contains some greedy members, is it reasonable to conclude that those members who are greedy can cause an overall increase in the cost of housing? The only way this could be true would be if the greedy landlords had a disproportionate influence on the price of real estate. Otherwise, if the greedy landlords raised their prices, people would rent or buy from the non-greedy members of the group, and the greedy landlords would either have to lower their rents, or go out of business.

In some cases, greedy landlords do have a disproportionate influence on real estate prices, such as when a developer gets special privileges from a city government (tax breaks, use of the government's eminent domain powers, free or low-cost infrastructure, etc.). My grandmother Lois Lamar was ripped off by greedy developers who had friends in the City of Austin planning department back in the late 1960's. She owned an entire block of land between San Pedro and Salado Streets near the University of Texas. My great grandfather Arthur Lamar had bought the land and built three houses on it with his own hands. He and my great grandmother rented out two of the houses and lived in one. My father's parents lived in one of the houses from the time my father was born until he was 6 or 7 years old. [Lady Bird and Lyndon Johnson lived across the street for a while, back when Mr. Johnson was a teacher] 

The developer's friends in the City of Austin sent my grandmother a notice that San Pedro Street was going to be widened, and she would lose more than half her front yard and would have to pay for all sorts of remedial plumbing work. If I received such a notice from the city, I'd check it out, but my grandmother was an old woman and not in the best of health. I don't know why my father didn't step in. Maybe he didn't know any better either. 

When the developers showed up and said they were willing to buy the land (at a ridiculously low price, to be sure, but after all, the street was going to be widened and chop off a huge chunk of the land), my grandmother agreed to sell it to them. I have always been a somewhat cynical, suspicious person, but I was just a kid at the time. I urged my grandmother not to sell, to fight it. But no one would listen to me. So the greedy developers pretty much stole the land from my grandmother, put up a hideous apartment complex, and rented out the apartments for the highest price they could get. One of the most infuriating things to me about the whole affair was that the apartment owners mentioned in their advertising that the land had once been owned by a descendant of Mirabeau B. Lamar, second president of the Republic of Texas. This was not strictly true, as my great grandfather was the descendant of Mirabeau B. Lamar's brother. But this particular land owner had already demonstrated that he was not an honest man. [San Pedro Street has never been widened, to this day]

To the extent this sort of thing has happened and continues to happen, greedy landlords are part of the cause of high housing costs, but only to the extent that they can work in partnership with groups of people with coercive power, such as local, state, and federal governments, and in some cases, organized crime. The entire west campus area of UT is now masses of large apartment complexes. There are very few of the small houses, duplexes, and four-plexes left. My daughter lived in one of the very last ones when she was a student at UT. She had to move when the owner sold it to make way for another large apartment building. One might imagine that, with the higher density, it would now be cheaper to live in the west campus area, but the new apartments rent for more per unit than the old houses did. 

Why is this, I wonder? When you replace, say, 32 units with 70 units, why don't the new units rent for something in the neighborhood of 1/2 the cost of the old units? One reason is that the new units are, well, new. Shiny and clean and new. But, based on my observation of both the old and the new, the new units are not as well built as the old ones; the finishes and fixtures are usually not especially nice. One cannot get any cross ventilation, so one is forced to use electric or gas heating and cooling, all year round in order to be comfortable. There are no private outdoor areas. One reason new units cost more than old is that building materials cost more now. But given this fact, isn't is insanely wasteful to just tear down the old buildings and cart away the lumber to landfills? So I suppose one needs to add profligate waste to the equation. This still doesn't explain what motivates the owners to waste materials -- perhaps the cost of labor makes it more expensive to remodel than to tear down and rebuild? I don't think this is the answer, at least not the whole answer. [This is something to think about and return to later]

Also, city codes now require more expensive building methods. People have so many electrical gadgets that many electrical outlets are required in each room. Since the structure allows for only limited (sometimes no) ventilation from the outside, air conditioning is mandatory. People also demand more bathrooms per household. One bathroom is no longer adequate for a two or three bedroom unit. I can't think of anyone but tenants and home buyers to blame for this situation. Sure, I guess you could blame advertisers, movies, TV shows for giving people the idea that they must own 150 electric gadgets per household and have one bathroom for every 1.5 occupants, or whatever. 

But people don't have to do what the advertisers suggest. 

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A Philosophical Moment

A few years ago, I decided to find out what career coaches do, so I signed up for a few hours of coaching. One of the things the coach did was administer some aptitude tests. I was relieved to find that both law and accounting were on my list of good career choices, since I earn a substantial part of my living from the joint practice of law and accounting (I am a tax lawyer). I was also very surprised to find library science as a top career choice. It's true that many of the people I know have lots of books, and my husband and I together probably own 7,000 volumes, maybe more. We've never actually counted, but they take up a huge amount of shelf space. But library science had never, ever occurred to me as a possible career choice.

Wiki says, "Library science (or Library and Information science) is an interdisciplinary field that applies the practices, perspectives, and tools ofmanagementinformation technologyeducation, and other areas to libraries; the collection, organization, preservation, and dissemination of information resources; and the political economy of information." 

Various careers in library science include librarian, metadata librarian, legal research, general research ...

I find legal and general research very appealing. I have a compelling need to learn new things, every day, and delight in integrating new pieces of information into my whole concept of The Way Things Work. By compelling, I mean utterly necessary for my mental and emotional well-being. I become very unhappy if I am not able to spend at least an hour or two a day learning new things. 
Which explains why I am spending time reading *Dark Age Ahead* by Jane Jacobs on the morning of a tax return deadline. This is not mere frivolous dawdling. I am getting my fix of new knowledge, so I can go forth and review tax returns for the rest of the day.

Writing in the early 2000's Jacobs focused on the breakdown of 5 pillars of cuture in the U.S. and Canada:

  • community and family
  • higher education
  • effective practice of science and science based technology
  • taxes and governmental powers directly in touch with needs and possibilities
  • self-policing by the learned professions
Just before I began writing this blog entry, I was reading Jacobs' analysis of the availability of housing to people, and how the cost of housing relative to earnings has risen during the latter half of the 20th century and the first years of the 21st. I had to stop at that point, to check Jacobs' statements against my own observations and other things I've read or heard about. She's definitely right about the cost of housing, but why has this happened? I'm sure Jacobs goes on to discuss the reasons, but I want to think about it myself first, before I read what she says (an aside: Jacobs died in 2004, yet I am writing of her as though she is speaking right now, today -- what a marvelous thing writing is, to allow the dead to speak to the living)

Because of recent experiences I have had with tenants who told me, in all earnestness, that they had no money to pay their rent, while at their sides was the fresh, new box that had contained the 42 inch TV they had just purchased, my thoughts naturally turned toward blaming tenants and homeowners. 

Far as I can tell, the particular tenants who are living in my house, rent-free, even as I write this, used to have more money for their household. The husband had a well-paying job in Michigan, while the wife shopped and minded the home. The husband lost the job in Michigan, took a lower-paying job in Texas; but the wife still spends as though the household had its old, higher income. 

That leads to a further question, because I don't think "my" tenants are unique. Considering the huge amount of credit card debt that USians have collectively run up, millions of USians have kept on spending based on income levels they no longer have. Likewise, our Congress continues to spend money it does not have. What is the cultural root of this tendency to be out of touch with reality? The answer is definitely not "capitalism." I think it's something more deeply rooted in human biology. Perhaps the same root that causes people to keep eating, even after they have already eaten enough to satisfy their energy needs. I say this, not as an aloof observer, but as a human who constantly struggles with my weight and budget.